By Gerald Hausman
Santa Fe, NM, USA
So many poets and writers of the so-called Beat Renaissance considered fellow poet Philip Whalen as "the best poet of them all."
I used to wonder why. Then I bought a copy of Philip's early, letterpress printed masterpiece, Memoirs of an Interglacial Age. It was clear to me then that, as Kerouac had told Whalen about this first book of his: Memoirs is "really some of the best poetry ever written in the world. There's a style all your own that no one can pin down or define – a style of Seeing and Saying – you're definitely a poet definitely Whalenesque ... you don't have to write novels if you don't want to."
He did want to, though. Badly. And he did write some okay novels, not badly, but not goodly either. It was the poetry that Whalen wrote, great chunks of Zen glitter and street chatter and as Whalen himself said, "whatnot." It was the casual, easy come easy go, lilt of lines said to him by Victorian aunts, scrappy uncles and parents who didn't quite understand this odd creature named Philip that they had raised up into a poet of some kind. "A big fat poetty boo," as Whalen once called himself in a poem.
In his poem "For My Father," he wrote:
Being a modest man, you wanted
Expected an ordinary child
And here's this large, inscrutable object
The funny thing about Whalen is that he didn't really try for humor as much as he merely saw the world from so many angles – historically, philosophically, literarily. He saw it through the eye of a homeless person and an aristocrat. He saw it upside down and downside up. He saw it standing on his head with Kerouac. But best of all he saw it through the nib of his Osmiroid calligraphy pen.
Thanks to the author of this new biography, we see Whalen as the goof and dreamer and loving compassionate friend he actually was. The book is loaded with anecdotes that allow us to see, as well, Whalen's devotion to the precepts of Buddhism.
I read Whalen's On Bear's Head hundreds of times when I used it as a text at The Windsor Mountain School in Lenox, Massachusetts where I taught Creative Writing. At that time, 1970, I wrote to Whalen in Kyoto and he set me straight on many of my literary illusions. He gave me reading lists and casual advice about how not to get discouraged as a writer. Once he said, "The day you win the Pulitzer and the Nobel all your friends will be out to lunch and they'll will miss the announcement on the news."
Once, when I asked him why he bothered writing to a twenty-something kid he hardly knew, he replied, "Well, I wouldn't write to you if you were no good." That cheered me up because I figured if I wasn't no good, I had to be some good. And some good was great if you had Phil Whalen for a teacher.
One bright morning, he praised my just published first book – "The poem that begins 'At Star Level', the one 'At the Road's Edge', another one, 'In the Islands' these are especially interesting to me, both as language and as image/experience/flash."
A little later he said, "More gravy and sparkles, please ..." by which he meant that I needed to loosen up a little bit and let the stains and shines happen as they may. I remember, some time after that, having lunch with Phil in Santa Fe and he was spattering his white shirt with red chile and he looked at me and laughed, and said with a chuckle, "Seems I can't eat without getting it on myself."
That was Phil and that was the life he lived – he managed to get life all over himself. Weather, friends, wine, poetry, conversation, music, bleak thoughts, bony thoughts, and mad exclamations. He was immersed in all of it. But never was he caught up in himself, which is why he ended up as a Roshi helping others as he had helped me.
So here is this great book by David Schneider showing Philip Whalen as he really was. This is accurately written, true-to-life biography. If you've somehow managed, by accident or neglect, to miss the poetry of Philip Whalen, go read this book and be the better for it. By the way, Phil did not want RIP on his tombstone. He thought RSVP was more to the point.